Mikko Hirvonen was shaking his head. He stopped. He stared straight ahead just long enough to think he might be able to take in what had just happened.
He couldn’t. So he started laughing instead.
“Bloody hell,” he grinned. Nope, that didn’t quite cover the emotions in Dunedin on Sunday afternoon.
That was more like it.
“I have only just stopped shaking,” he added. “That last stage. It was… crazy!”
A few days ago I mentioned two words: Kuri Bush. Those are the two words that have the flying Finn frothing (it’s antipodean for excited, sort of one step beyond stoked).
“You know,” said Hirvonen, “we talked about the cambers and how important it was to keep the car on the right side of the camber? Well, I got on the wrong side.
“In fifth gear.”
“That was a scary one. I thought before the stage: “My notes are not perfect, but let’s give it a bit of a go.” The first time it really was a scary one – after that I just took it steady. I didn’t want to throw it in the bin.”
Across the flying finish and finally safe, Hirvonen could deliver the world’s most famous Ford Escort back to its owner. It was dirty, but clean. Not a scratch despite sufficient speed to deliver a comfortable Classic Otago Rally win.
“I love this rally,” he said. “I love these roads. I heard it before, but it’s true – these are the best roads in the world. There’s not so many jumps, but so many corners on the crests where you can really send the car sideways. I just love it.”
Quite how welcome Hirvonen will be when he lands back in Jyväskylä having sworn allegiance to lanes other than those in his own backyard is debatable.
“I’ll just move down here then,” he laughed.
“There’s such a nice flow to the roads here. They are fast, but when you have the camber – and you’re on the right side of it – you can carry so much speed. The roads are really hard as well, there’s no danger of any ruts coming. You can just enjoy the driving. The place is perfect.”
Welcome to Otago.
It really is perfect.
A few years ago, Hayden Paddon was lambasted for departing the Frankfurt suburbs for a commute from Cromwell.
Cromwell, to the uninitiated, is a short dash up the Kawaru Gorge from Queenstown. The Kawaru is a river spanned by the Kawaru Gorge Suspension Bridge. For 108 years it was just that. Just a bridge over a river. In November 1988, a chap named Hackett tied one end of a length of elastic to his ankles and the other end to something substantial on the bridge.
Then went headfirst into the 43 meters which separated bridge and river.
When he offered others the chance to do it for $75, they arrived in their thousands from all around the world. Almost overnight, Queenstown was crowned the adventure capital of the world.
In reality, adventure had been front and centre in Otago for 20 years by then. Red jet boats had been threading the needle of Skippers Canyon on the Shotover River since 1965.
The original single-engined boats have now been replaced by a fleet of twin-engined versions which deliver 700bhp from two V8s displacing, wait for it, 760 liters of water every second.
The voice of experience dictates there’s no better way to escape the sleepiness which accompanies a day on a plane from London to the land of the long white cloud.
Driving one of these boats on the Shotty is, in principle, entirely similar to driving a rally car. Being behind the man behind the wheel as he Scandinavian flicked us at the rock face with 16 cylinders singing their song was, quite literally, an eye-opening experience.
Cromwell or Queenstown, Paddon’s decision was the very definition of a no-brainer.
“People just didn’t get it,” Paddon said. “For me, it’s all about where your head is. When I was in Frankfurt, to be perfectly honest, I was bored. I’m not somebody who can sit around, I like to be busy and the best way to do that was to come home.
“The jet-lag thing has never bothered me, you just get on with it. I’d rather spend a day on a plane to be here…”
He waves an outstretched arm through the Otago air pointing to the surrounding mountains and outrageously stunning scenery.
The nuts and bolts might have been in Alzenau, but the inspiration for Paddon’s time at the very top of the world of rallying was anchored very much in Otago.
I’m with Hirvonen and Paddon. I’m all-in for the big move south.
Otago offers the best rally in New Zealand which – by Mikko’s rule – makes it the best rally in the world. That’s just the start. Don’t get me started on the penguins (we saw one which was definitely a penguin), the rugby, the Steinlager and the Fergburger.
Dunedin and Otago are both must-sees for the world.
The Otago Rally is an event worthy of any driver’s bucket list. Skip a couple of home rounds, lob the car in a container, give the world’s best pair of Oakleys (Roger and Norman, the brothers behind the event) a bell and get on a plane south.
And I can say south with some confidence. Only those in Invercargill and Patagonia need head north.
One question was asked consistently throughout the weekend: could Dunedin host the world championship? Could Rog and Norm be the men to get the Kiwis back on the world stage? Given the typically pragmatic, can-do attitude associated with life down here, I’ve little doubt they could.
Dunedin would be a bit of a squeeze, but the roads are more than good enough.
Hirvonen: “Definitely! These stages are better than the ones we used in the WRC.”
Back in the fall of last year, world championship regulars are now holding their breath in hope of another Rally New Zealand next season. Will it happen? Who knows.
One thing’s for sure, the Otago Rally will.
What are you waiting for? Just remember to keep it the right side of the camber.